Bordeaux: A Place with Time for Tourists

Bordeaux, France is the quintessential European city. It has a convenient On/Off Tourist Bus service, fantastic public transportation that comes along so frequently you really don't need to rent a car, and easy walking using the free tourist office maps or following, carefully, the tram routes that lead to destinations.

OnOff Visiotour Bus. Local transport. Tramlines through city parkland.

Bordeaux, France is the quintessential European city. It has a convenient On/Off Tourist Bus service, fantastic public transportation that comes along so frequently you really don’t need to rent a car, and easy walking using the free tourist office maps or following, carefully, the tram routes that lead to destinations.

As in Scandinavia, do they all speak English? Yes. But will they? This is, after all, France. However, we resolved for once to speak only high school French, mais oui, as a preliminary ice breaker — and our French was so halting the locals replied, perhaps reluctantly, in English. We got a 2-day City Card; it was marginally less expensive than the 3-day we should have gone for because there are a lot of things to see and do in this city. Of its major museums, 2 in particular were worth a visit: the understated Museum of Decorative Arts and the awesome Aquitaine Museum (Aquitaine being this southwestern region of France, one of 27, but the largest.)

Museum of Decorative Arts

This museum has a history as most old buildings do in France if they were in the hands of the wealthy at the time of the French Revolution. The mansion was built in 1779, ten years before the Great Fear initiated the peasant revolt that, incidentally was thought by historian Mary K. Matossian to have been provoked by ergotism. The mansion was a private home, then a police headquarters and a prison and became a museum in 1923 with improvements in 1955 and 1984. Ceramics, glass and furniture make it the attraction of today. We would have missed it but for the fact it was included in the Bordeaux CityPass

The Museum of Decorative Arts seeks to show what a mansion owned by the wealthy looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries. Louis XV on horseback. Apothecary jars in cabinets.

The Aquitaine Museum

The Aquitaine Museum opened in the former location of the Faculty of Sciences and Letters in 1987. It is huge and visitors could easily spend a full day wandering its halls. The choices seem endless starting with the pomposity of the cenotaph of Michel de Montaigne, the 16th Century self-indulgent writer who believed his existence was a “miracle.” His widow must have shared his opinion because in 1593, a year after his death, she had the sculpture created beside a medieval helmet as if he were a man of arms rather than a man of letters. The subtlety of all this may be lost on the children studying in the museum beside the 13th Century Knight of Curton (who lies with his sword, ready to rise up on the Day of Judgment) -- but they are such attentive kids, they may well understand everything on display.

Aquitaine Museum. Montaigne's tomb. Young students.

The museum covers a vast amount of material from Bordeaux’s maritime history to its rural beginnings and even shows Aquitaine’s contributions to aviation.

Exhibits show the area’s prehistory from the sepulture cave of Eybral (discovered 1971 and explored in 1973) with its remains of 60 persons; trophies from France’s tropical empire and medical equipment used by French colonial doctors.

Facsimiles of the Cave of Lascaux. A pair of 1777 pistols refused by the Marine Regiment as being too complex and little adapted for naval warfare. This suggests US complaints post-World War II about their contractors are not a new phenomenon.

More yhan Museums: Bordeaux Hands-On Activities

“French Chef Training”

We had our half-day at the Leading Hotels of the World’s Grand Hotel de Bordeaux, courtesy of Uniworld as an optional shore excursion. About 10 of us showed up to learn the magic of French cuisine. The chefs instructing us in how to prepare a great meal seemed unimpressed that one of us wondered, apparently innocently, if British cuisine might not be superior to the French!

The students had a scrupulously clean variety of pots, sharp instruments and enthusiastic and forgiving instructors. No wonder they all graduated at the top of the class.

One characteristic of fine cuisine seems to be fastidious back-bending attention to detail.

The biggest surprise to one of the students is how the complete removal of fish bones from a slab of fresh salmon is a manual exercise depending on the tactile ability to find what may not be visible.

“Bordeaux Wine Appreciation”

The cuisine experience with the luncheon we had prepared took half a day. Not every tourist has that much time to spare. However an alternative experience, Introduction to Bordeaux Wines, takes only 2 hours but covers an impressive range of subjects at a cost of 39 € per person. (Summer only, by appointment, from 10 a.m. to 12 noon, Monday to Saturday). Lessons take place in the L’Ecole du Vin, one block from the Grand Hotel and across the street from the tourist office). We had found the location the day before from a guide book that suggested tourists who wanted a glass of wine and a simple snack plate could get the former for 2 to 8 € and the latter for 5 to 6 € at the Bar a Vin in this same location.

Wine School. The program was really well done with excellent printed materials for later study and slide presentations discussed by a mademoiselle in fluent English.

An interesting additional experience for students involved sniffing what looked like marker pens stacked before them. They were actually the sources of the different aromas the nose and palate can detect like balsamic, woody, spicy, floral, and fruity and some more challenging ones like animal, chemical, empyreumatic, ethereal, and others… We got lost there until a college student in the rear told us empyreumatic was just a fancy word for the smell of slightly burned meat or vegetables. Of interest was how often this young student called out the correct answers to the instructor’s question, “What aroma is that one?” as we all sniffed our magic markers. He either was a wine snob with a real nose for aromas or one who simply knew the vocabulary for the smells; we suspect the former.

Wine School. Questions were encouraged and came fast with the subject matter such as the Bordeaux wine-growing area, and the 6 categories of Bordeaux wine (red, dry wine, sweet Bordeaux, rose, clairet, and cremant.). The soils were discussed from the gravelly soil of the left bank of the Garonne, the clay, limestone, and sandy soils of the right bank of the Dordogne and the soils between the 2 rivers. Then, how to serve a wine, how to describe it in 10 stages, how to get a balance with wine matching food. All fascinating but, to some, headache-inducing as if they had just knocked back a vast glass of red!

Before this class we had not realized how large the winegrowing appellations of the Bordeaux region were, namely 1.6 times the size of the Rhone appellations, 3.8 times the size of the Burgundy area (that was a real surprise to us), 6.1 times the size of the Beaujolais, and 7.1 times the size of the Alsace area.

It’s big business. Every year 728 million bottles of Bordeaux are produced for a value of 3.9 million Euros. Of those, 58% is aimed at the French market and 42% for export.

As the students pick up their charts to leave, our instructor says, “Think of this. Twenty-three bottles of Bordeaux wine are sold every second of every day in the world!”

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Physicians. Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.